Strokes Hit Women Harder

Higher incidence of death, damage from strokes points to inequality of care.

February 15, 2009, 5:31 PM

Feb. 15, 2009 -- A focus at the International Stroke Conference this week in San Diego will be the growing epidemic of women having strokes. According to the American Heart Association, an estimated 3.9 million women in the U.S. suffer a stroke each year and 87,000 die from it. New research reveals that not only do women pay a much higher price for a stroke than men -- they are often getting less aggressive care.

A stroke does not treat its victims equally. Women are more likely to die from a stroke than men. And if they survive, women are more likely to be severely disabled. And this latest research suggests that part of the reason may be that women are often getting inferior medical care.

"Women are not getting the treatment they need. And if they ever get it, it's late. Sometimes too late to do them any good," said Dr. Sharonne Hayes of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Data from more than a thousand U.S. hospitals reveals that women are less likely to receive timely stroke treatments like clot-busting drugs and blood thinners or basics like aspirin and cholesterol drugs to prevent a stroke.

"This situation is not acceptable and there is no excuse for it, because these are the guidelines. We know what we're supposed to do and we're not doing it," said Dr. Hayes.

One study found that emergency room doctors were significantly less likely to even diagnose strokes in women, as compared to men.

Making matters worse, researchers predict the number of women having strokes will grow ever larger because more and more women have uncontrolled high blood pressure.

Persistent high blood pressure (a rate of 140/90 or higher) damages the blood vessels leading to the brain, so blood clots form more easily. While the rate of men with uncontrolled high blood pressure has remained at a constant 17 percent over the last decade, the rate among women has jumped from 17 percent to 22 percent, putting millions more women at risk.

Fifty-three-year-old Diana Fite had high blood pressure for several years and did nothing about it. Then, while driving her car outside of Houston, she suffered a massive stroke. "The car started to swerve back and forth. I went from being extremely weak to no strength at all in my right hand or right foot," said Fite. It took several days and powerful medications, but Fite's paralysis slowly lifted. Of all people, Fite should have known the risks of high blood pressure. Fite is a medical doctor.

"I am extremely lucky. There is no excuse for not taking care of the high blood pressure. I was definitely in denial and I have clearly learned my lesson," said Fite.

The good news is that reducing high blood pressure to healthy levels reduces the risk of a stroke by half... for both men AND women.